Mapping America's Prospects, in Mississippi and Elsewhere

By James Fallows

On Friday, I introduced the work of Joe Max Higgins, Brenda Lathan, Raj Shaunak, and others who over the past decade have attracted some $6 billion worth of industrial investment to the "Golden Triangle" area of Eastern Mississippi. That post included screen shots from maps that were designed to illustrate a simple baseline point: the economic challenge facing the state of Mississippi as a whole, including the Columbus-Starkville-West Point area that makes up the Golden Triangle. Depending on how you measure, Mississippi comes in at or near the bottom of most state rankings economically. For instance, in median household income, subject of the first map below, it stands at #50 among the states.

Now, with help from John Tierney, here are interactive versions of three maps that put the state's challenge in perspective.

These maps, via the ArcGIS software from our partner Esri, are useful beyond their specific relevance for this state or the South. For one thing, they are zoomable. The more you click in, using the + button, the finer the resolution, until you end up seeing specific Census tracts and blocks. As you zoom back out, with the - button, you see averaged values for counties or states as a whole.

Also, these maps cover the entire country, so you can see how the values apply in other places of interest. Finally, they have pop-up labels and information. If you click on an area, a window will come up showing relevant info for the zone(s) that in view. As you'll see, this behavior changes depending on how close-in or far-out you have zoomed, but it's self explanatory.

The first map is the one used for the previous post's screen shots. It shows the median household income of any given area, compared with the national median of just over $50,000. The bluer and darker the color, the richer the households in that area. The lighter the coloring, the poorer. The further in you click, the finer-grained the classifications you will see -- again, for anyplace, not just Mississippi. (The three dots on the maps are the three cities of the Golden Triangle: red for Columbus, blue for West Point, and green for Starkville.)

Next, because this is relevant for America as a whole as well as across the South, here is a similar clickable map of the African-American share of the population in each area, based on the 2010 Census. Here darker shading means a higher African-American percentage in each neighborhood, county, or state.


With this mapping technology, we can produce "swipable" maps, in which you can move a slider back and forth and compare different patterns or time periods. The correlations between income and race are striking—as, of course, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been demonstrating. Update: and now John Tierney has produced one of these illuminating swipe maps. It is below. Click on "Hide Intro" to see more of the map. Then move the slider back and forth to see how racial patterns correlate with economic ones. The two sides of the map will zoom and pan in sync. When you're done with the South, try Washington DC, or Chicago. You'll see some very clear patterns.

Also, Ta-Nehisi Coates's article is about the 21st-century living influence of slave-holding patterns from the 17th century onward, plus the 19th and 20th century history of Jim Crow and segregation. This screen shot of America's current racial distribution, zoomed out to regional scale, underscores his point. The areas with the greatest concentrations of African-Americans now are the areas where their forebears were brought and worked as slaves.

Finally, here is a "population pressure" map, based on work by Jim Herries of Esri that was previously described here. The idea is to create a very detailed representation of the parts of America that are gaining and losing population. The blue dots are parts of America whose population is expected to grow in pace with the national average. The green dots are faster-growing areas; the magenta, areas of expected decline. This too gives you an idea of the challenge facing the Golden Triangle and other areas of the country. I find this map very instructive about all sorts of American developments, from voting patterns to the gestation points of new industries.

That is the mapping installment for today. Next: what has gone right in the Golden Triangle's approach, and what (if anything) might be wrong with it.

And since today is Memorial Day, please see Deb Fallows's post on the connections among this holiday, the city of Columbus, Mississippi, and our magazine.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/05/mapping-americas-prospects-in-mississippi-and-elsewhere/371565/